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Negroponte Assesses Iraqi Progress, Intel on Iran’s Nukes

December 5, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte just returned from a trip to the Middle East where he urged Iraqi lawmakers to push through newly-crafted legislation. In an interview with Jim Lehrer, Negroponte discusses his trip to Iraq and a new intelligence report detailing the limits of Iran's nuclear weapons program.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And to our Newsmaker interview with the deputy secretary of state, John Negroponte.

Mr. Secretary, welcome.

JOHN NEGROPONTE, Deputy Secretary of State: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: On Iran, President Bush said today Iran needs to come clean on its nuclear program. What is there left to know?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, it isn’t only what there’s left to know; it’s the fact that they still deny that they had a nuclear weapons program. So I think that’s the real point of departure.

They’ve got to acknowledge that they had such a program, and then they’ve got to get in discussions with the international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency about the components of that program, what it consisted of, and finally bring — if they’re going to have some kind of nuclear activity, that’s got to be brought under full safeguards by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

JIM LEHRER: So to know that it’s not working to acquire or develop a nuclear weapon is not enough?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, this is an intelligence assessment. This is, if you will, perhaps just the beginning of knowledge.

The other point I would make in that regard is that the suspension or the halting of the construction of a nuclear device was only one component of what would constitute a nuclear program. There’s also the delivery mechanisms, and that activity continues.

And, of course, most importantly, enrichment activity continues. And that, again, in defiance of the international community and in defiance of outstanding U.N. Security Council resolutions, so it’s quite a complex picture.

JIM LEHRER: Of course, before you took this job as the number-two man in the U.S. Department of State, you were the director of national intelligence.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Correct.

JIM LEHRER: What is your reading of why it took four years to determine, the U.S. intelligence to determine that the uranium program had been halted?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: My reading is that it’s new information. There certainly wasn’t anything at the time that we issued that assessment in the spring of 2005 that would suggest that they had halted their work on a — the design or the construction of a nuclear weapon, nor did I see anything during my close to two years’ tenure there that would have altered that judgment.

In fact, I left my position as director of national intelligence convinced that Iraq — that Iran, excuse me, was determined to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Increased intelligence efforts

John Negroponte
Deputy Secretary of State
This is not unusual in the world of intelligence. You acquire insights into situations well after the fact based on some new information, some new source, some new stream of information that comes to your attention.

JIM LEHRER: How does that work? How could suddenly, two years later, people look at something and see something entirely different?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, it isn't only a question of looking. It's a question -- and this would have to get you into sources and methods -- but it would be new information acquired from a variety of sources that was heretofore unavailable.

This is not unusual in the world of intelligence. You acquire insights into situations well after the fact based on some new information, some new source, some new stream of information that comes to your attention that had not been previously available. So I don't find this particularly surprising.

JIM LEHRER: But it would be fair to say that this means that U.S. intelligence on Iran has improved dramatically in two years, right?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, it certainly means that we came upon some very good new information. And I think that that's reflective, at least in part, of the fact that in recent months and years we have decided to devote an increased amount of attention to the coverage of Iran, and certainly in my time that was one of the decisions that was undertaken.

In fact, we created a special mission manager office to cover the Iran issue in the Office of National Intelligence. And there were commensurate steps taken throughout the intelligence community to bolster our collection and analytical efforts in regard to Iran.

Addressing skepticism

John Negroponte
Deputy Secretary of State
It is not enough simply to have this one bit of information that they suspended work on a weapons design back in 2003. There are many, many other elements of this activity that need to be explained.

JIM LEHRER: Would you be sympathetic to those who are skeptical about this whole thing? "Wait a minute. U.S. intelligence had Iraq wrong on weapons of mass destruction. In 2005, U.S. intelligence had Iran wrong on nuclear weapons. Now there's a new one in 2007." About whether to believe, not believe, how do you test these things, just an ordinary person?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: I think that, first of all, I think that our intelligence community is second to none in this world. I have the highest regard for the men and women of our intelligence community, for the collectors, for the analysts. I think they do absolutely superlative work. That would be my first point.

Secondly, I think I would make the point that intelligence is only one aspect of formulating a policy. It's an element, a tool, if you will, in formulating our policy. And it is not the policy itself.

So I think this is new information. We have to factor it into our calculations, and we have to carry it forward. But I don't think it alters the fact that Iran had previously concealed its enrichment activities, only made them public once they had been revealed by sources inside of Iran who are opposed to the regime.

And there is a lot to be explained, in terms of what Iran was doing in the nuclear area. And it is not enough simply to have this one bit of information that they suspended work on a weapons design back in 2003. There are many, many other elements of this activity that need to be explained.

JIM LEHRER: Should the fact that this National Intelligence Estimate was made public in a very official way yesterday, should that be considered a new world order in the world of intelligence of the United States?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: I think what is a new world order -- and this is a change that began in my time as director of national intelligence -- is that we are doing -- more and more frequently, we are making public an unclassified version of the key judgments to share with the American people and the world the essential conclusions that we have drawn from these national studies.

There was a time when one simply did not publicize any of this activity, nor was it leaked. And the studies were -- they were conducted. The conclusions were presented. We factored them into our policymaking process, and then we went on. But today we live in a different world.

JIM LEHRER: It's a good thing, do you think?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, I think it's the world as it is. I think there's no escaping it. And it's something that we're just going to have to live with in the future.

Reduction in Iraq violence

John Negroponte
Deputy Secretary of State
I think the political part is slow. It's difficult; it requires patience. But I will give you a couple of examples of where I think it is working. First of all, in Baghdad, I think the sectarian violence has subsided dramatically.

JIM LEHRER: Iraq, you just came back from Iraq. And as I understand it, your mission was to check with and talk to all the civilian leaders and others in Iraq and determine the state of progress that is being made by the government, on the political side, as a result of the reduction in violence. What is your judgment? What's going on?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, I had really two purposes.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: One was, as you say, to talk to government officials and get some sense of how the national reconciliation process in Baghdad is going, particularly with respect to the various pieces of legislation that are pending.

But I also had what I consider a slightly broader purpose, which is that I visited nine different locations throughout the country, got to travel a little bit in the countryside, also traveled outside the Green Zone in Baghdad to get a feel for how things were going.

I was struck by the progress that's been made in the Sunni areas, particularly Fallujah and Ramadi, parts of Iraq...

JIM LEHRER: That's the Anbar province area.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Anbar province, the Sunni area, parts of Iraq that were during my time as ambassador there very difficult to get around. I certainly was not able during my time to travel through downtown Ramadi, which I was able to do on this occasion.

JIM LEHRER: But the political thing isn't working, is it, Mr. Ambassador?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, I'm not sure that I would draw that conclusion. I think the political part is slow. It's difficult; it requires patience.

But I will give you a couple of examples of where I think it is working. First of all, in Baghdad, I think the sectarian violence has subsided dramatically. And I think that's an important development with political consequences.

These neighborhoods are more peaceful today than they were six or eight months ago. Some of the refugees, some of the internally displaced people, are starting to come back to their communities.

JIM LEHRER: But the big issues, like sharing oil revenues, letting some of the Baathists come back into the government, some of the things that you have said -- you and others in the United States government have said are so important for the al-Maliki government to accomplish, those are not -- that has not been done, right?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: OK, I'll address that question. But, first of all, subsiding violence is a big issue.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: It's important. So is a diminution of sectarian violence in the city of Baghdad.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: There has been a movement on the legislative front. For example, the pensions law was just promulgated by the government. And that is going to increase pensions that are available to former government employees, including Baathists, so there's a reconciliation element there.

The de-Baathification law has just gone through, I believe, its second reading and may be promulgated shortly. Work is definitely being done intensively on the question of the oil framework law and the oil revenue law. And that's something we're working very hard.

And I'm hopeful that that can be accomplished in the next couple to three months.

JIM LEHRER: A couple to three months, you think it could be done?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, maybe it could be done sooner than that. But in any case, I'm hopeful. I really am.

Political process moving slowly

John Negroponte
Deputy Secretary of State
I left in March of 2005. And I'd say the situation looked more hopeful as a result of this trip than it has on any previous return trip that I'd taken there.

JIM LEHRER: More general, there are stories today in the New York Times and elsewhere, they were suggesting that what's really happened here is a cease-fire, there's not peace in Iraq. In terms of the very things you're talking about, the reduction of violence and whatever, this is just a cease-fire. It doesn't mean that it's permanent.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Too early to tell. I certainly agree that the peace and calm that has come about is fragile. It needs to be consolidated; it needs to be followed up in several different ways.

One is the legislation that you talked about. Another -- and here there's also been some progress -- is to get resources to the embattled areas that are now recovering and do some reconstruction work, some resettlement work, help the communities get back on their feet.

The government's gotten better, in terms of getting money out to these post-conflict situations. That was one of the things that really pleasantly surprised me in various places that I went to.

JIM LEHRER: Did you leave there with a feeling -- you say you're hopeful, you're optimistic -- but with the feeling that there's something that -- something really important must be done soon if this peace is going to be maintained?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: First of all, it's the best trip back. I've taken four trips back since I left Iraq as ambassador.

JIM LEHRER: And when was that? When do you...

JOHN NEGROPONTE: I left in March of 2005. And I'd say the situation looked more hopeful as a result of this trip than it has on any previous return trip that I'd taken there. That would be my first observation.

My second -- and I said it when I was in Iraq, and I told it to my interlocutors -- I think they've got to seize this opportunity to try to consolidate this fragile peaceful situation that has developed.

JIM LEHRER: Is there one reason, some simple reason as to why they've been unable to seize it thus far?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, I think they are.

JIM LEHRER: They are doing it?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: They're just doing it I think sometimes a little more slowly than we would wish. And we are impatient. And it's hard.

JIM LEHRER: And you've expressed this -- did you express this...

JOHN NEGROPONTE: I did, both privately and publicly. I said they've got to seize the moment.

JIM LEHRER: What do they say when you say that?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: They say, "We're working on it, but you Americans are impatient." So I think we have to find a way of finding some accommodation between the two positions.

But I think they get the message. And they also understand that their international support is not infinite in duration and that people who wish them well and who want to be supportive nonetheless can reasonably ask that they work on these things as rapidly as they possibly can.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Thank you.